BAGHDAD – A pair of suicide car bombings Sunday devastated the heart of Iraq’s capital, killing at least 147 people in the country’s deadliest attack in more than two years. The bombs targeted two government buildings and called into question Iraq’s ability to protect its people as U.S. forces withdraw.
The bombings show that insurgents still have the ability to launch horrific attacks even as violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq. Many fear such attacks will increase as Iraq prepares for January elections.
The dead included 35 employees at the Ministry of Justice and at least 25 staff members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, said police and medical officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. At least 721 people were wounded, including three American contractors.
The street where the blasts occurred had just been reopened to vehicle traffic six months ago. Shortly after, blast walls were repositioned to allow traffic closer to the government buildings. Such changes were touted by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a sign that safety was returning to the city.
The Iraqi leader walked among the mangled and blackened cars, which lay in front of blast walls decorated with peaceful street scenes of Iraq. At the Justice Ministry, windows and walls on both sides of the street were blown away, and blood pooled with water from burst pipes.
Al-Maliki has staked his political reputation and re-election bid on his ability to bring peace to the country and pledged to punish those responsible, who he said wanted to “spread chaos in the country, undermine the political process and prevent the holding of parliamentary elections.” But the Sunday attacks seemed designed to paint the Iraqi leader as incapable of providing security to the beleaguered city.
The attacks occurred just hours before Iraq’s top leadership was scheduled to meet with heads of political parties in order to reach a compromise on election guidelines needed to hold the January vote.
President Barack Obama, who earlier this week reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to withdrawing its troops from the country, called al-Maliki to offer his condolences.
“These bombings serve no purpose other than the murder of innocent men, women and children, and they only reveal the hateful and destructive agenda of those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that they deserve,” Obama said.
The fact that the vehicles were able to get into an area home to numerous government institutions sparked demands that those in charge of the city’s security be held accountable.
The initial investigation suggested the vehicles, each loaded down with more than 1,500 pounds of explosives, might have passed through some security checkpoints before hitting their destination, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, a spokesman for the city’s operations command center.
There have been no claims of responsibility so far, but massive car bombs have been the hallmark of the Sunni insurgents seeking to overthrow the country’s Shiite-dominated government.
U.S. troops were also called in at the request of the Iraqi government to help secure the area, deal with any explosive material and assist in the investigation, said a military spokesman, Maj. Dave Shoupe.
Three American security contractors working for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were injured in the blasts, said Philip Frayne, an embassy spokesman. Frayne could not immediately provide details about which company they worked for or the nature of their injuries.